Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To say paper in Chinese, you have to understand paper in China

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One day, I was walking around a mall with a friend, and I told him I had to use the bathroom. So we found a bathroom, and then he said to me, "Do you have paper?" and I said yes, don't worry, I'm fine.

Back up. You may be thinking, "umm what?" Let me explain.

So I was in China, and my friend is Chinese- but he talks to me in English. And here's what you have to know about China: There's probably no toilet paper in the public restrooms. (Probably no soap either, which scares me to death...) You have to bring your own toilet paper. Except, not really. People bring little packs of kleenex to use as toilet paper.

The confusing part is that, in Chinese, all of the following are referred to as 纸 (zhǐ): paper, toilet paper, napkins, kleenex, paper towels. So native Chinese speakers, when they speak English, refer to all of them as "paper." (Yes there are more specific names to differentiate between the types of 纸 (zhǐ), but Chinese people don't use them in regular everyday conversation.)

Oh, another thing: We don't really buy napkins and paper towels in China. Napkins, you can get one at a restaurant when you buy food. Yeah. One. Maybe they'll give you two, maybe. And there's no napkin dispenser where they're giving out free ones. And paper towels, well it's been months since I've seen a paper towel.

So instead, people just use kleenexes as napkins and paper towels. As an American, at first I thought that was REALLY WEIRD. Because napkins are VERY DIFFERENT from kleenexes, right? But now I've gotten used to it, so, whatever.

(Culture shock is a helluva drug, I guess.)

Recently I went to a restaurant with one of my students. We ordered the food up at the counter, then sat down. I was asking him a question about Chinese, and he was telling me how to say a word, and then he suddenly says, "Do you need paper?"

My brain is like, no I got it, I don't need to write it down. Or you know, I could just use my phone, type it in to see exactly how the characters look.

But I stopped myself and realized what he actually meant was, "Do you want a napkin?"

Or, from an American point of view, "Do you want a kleenex that you can use as a napkin?"

And he went up to the little kleenex box at the front counter and got us two kleenexes, which we later used as napkins.


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Basically, little things like this mean that in China, a whole separate dialect of English has been created. Where people refer to toilet paper as "paper" and everyone's fine with it- even the foreign teachers- because it's such a common mistake that it hardly even counts as a mistake anymore. Everyone who's spent a bit of time in China can understand what they mean.

As a teacher, I don't know if I should even try to correct it or not. The point of language is to communicate with other people, and if you're speaking English with someone who already knows the situation regarding toilet paper and napkins and kleenexes in China, then they'll understand if a Chinese person just refers to something as "paper." If you want to travel to America, where the average person has strong opinions about the difference between napkins and kleenexes, well you better learn the American way to say it.

And my job is to teach English- not necessarily to teach American English.

So I guess I'll let that one go, maybe because it's too hard to correct that error anyway, in a culture where toilet paper, napkins, and kleenex are all used interchangeably.

(But man, when someone comes up to me after class and says, "You left your clothes in the classroom"- an error whose cause is very similar to this one, and makes it sound like I'm walking around the school in my bra- I feel like I gotta correct that one. What they actually meant was, "You left your jacket in the classroom." But that's a whole other post.)

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